Owls, porcupines and holy graves

A nocturnal walk on Jerusalem’s wild side

Porcupine 311 (photo credit: Ruth Schueler)
Porcupine 311
(photo credit: Ruth Schueler)
Many cities offer nighttime walks, but from the start this tour was clearly going to be something else. The meeting point, for instance, at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, was so close to the Knesset that as we searched for lizards and spiders in cracks along a wall, a guard came to check us out.
And it’s doubtful tours in any other capital cities ask if there are kohanim present, but much of this trip took place in a graveyard, halachicly off limits to the priestly caste.
As the roughly 90-minute tour progressed, we were to discover several uniquely Jerusalem phenomena.
You might not be aware, for example, that Jerusalem has a particularly high concentration of albino porcupines.
The porcupines were definitely a big hit on our trip. It was the first cool evening in days and the huge prickly herbivores couldn’t wait for JBO director Amir Balaban to finish his explanations before ambling over to a feeding spot near the lake to pick at (and fight over) the food as we watched from the hidden observation station.
A few years ago, when it became clear that a large number of porcupines were losing their homes to the development of the area around the former Foreign Ministry building, the JBO built a special subterranean den for the evicted rodents, equipped with infrared, closed-circuit cameras.
Unfortunately the best laid plans of mice and wildlife observers have a way of going wrong.
The “sheltered accommodation,” as Balaban calls it, did not take into account the added height needed when the male porcupine (carefully, as the old joke goes) mounts the female to mate. Or perhaps the Jerusalemite porcupines are naturally more modest. Ultimately, they dug their own annex, out of the camera’s range, but whatever goes on there must be successful as two baby porcupines can be seen real-time on www.jbo.org.il (along with other details of the observatory).
A noted wildlife expert, Balaban believes the unusually high number of albino porcupines in the Holy City is a sign that they are adapting to their urban environment, becoming more visible on the roads at night.
During our late August “nocturnal safari” we did not see any albinos, but one excited teenager in our group did find an all-white quill in the graveyard. Incidentally, other porcupines live there in a cave dating back to the Second Temple period.
Not to be confused with the porcupine, we also came across a small hedgehog. Balaban had enthralled the younger members of our tour with his explanations of hedgehog defense.
Hedgehogs, whose diet is based on insects and meat, can kill scorpions and snakes. They lick the poison and then spread it on the bristles on their backs to deter foes like dogs. (The poison doesn’t kill either unless it enters their bloodstream but apparently the dogs don’t like the taste.) The prickly creatures have, however, more serious predators. And if you ever wondered how a bird of prey could kill and devour a hedgehog, think “soft underbelly.”
Balaban also explained the special characteristics that help night birds, such as specialized hearing, vision and feathers (structured to make the birds’ flight almost silent).
Perched on a tree, a long-eared owl stared back at our small group. His feathers might have been ruffled by our presence, but he didn’t lose his appetite. He suddenly flew off, snatched a small bird from a nearby bough, and gave us a new insight into the phrase “to be carried off in your sleep.”
Another peculiarity: Whereas most owls feed on rodents and other small mammals, the Jerusalemites have adapted their diet to the ready supply of birds, even adjusting their breeding patterns to suit the migration seasons. It is not unusual for JBO staff and volunteers to discover bird rings among the regurgitated owl pellets, evidence that the owls have eaten one of the feathered visitors who had just been carefully weighed, measured and studied.
We saw plenty of bats and heard frogs but, disappointingly, we didn’t see any jackals. Nonetheless, at some points we had to step carefully to avoid their poop so we knew they were around, possibly watching us looking for them.
The focus of the tour was the urban environment.
Not, of course, that you can keep religion out of anything in Israel.
In recent years, there have been regular mass pilgrimages by members of a hassidic sect to one of the graves – following the dream of one member – and, like the porcupines, they are carrying out improvised and unlicensed building at the site, only less in tune with the environment.
Many of the graves, sadly, are unmarked. The site was hastily developed during the War of Independence when the neighborhood was cut off from the main Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
Traipsing among tombstones might not meet everyone’s definition of a fun evening out but if you like nature, you grab it where you find it.
And it turns out all you really have to do is look up, down and around you. Balaban, who is promoting the concept of “urban nature,” notes that wherever you live, there are animals sharing your space.
If your idea of nightlife is a meal and a movie, consider including Eretz Bereishit, Moshe Alpert’s beautiful nature film shot entirely in Israel. If you prefer to curl up with a good book, Jonathan Rosen’s philosophical The Life of the Skies might make you look at the world differently.
The early bird catches the worm and at the JBO the early visitor can catch the bird ringing. For night owls, however, it’s worth taking a walk on the wild side.